Cochran v. McDaniel — A Final Analysis

In my previous commentaries about the Mississippi Republican primary for the U.S. Senate, I have expressed no preference.  Although I had been leaning toward one of the candidates, I tried to balance the pros and the cons of each man objectively.  I believe I did a pretty fair job of it, especially since an old friend of mine wondered why I was against the guy I actually voted for.

With that said, I have been asked again to offer an opinion.   This time another friend posed a set of questions which seems to cut to the heart of this debate.  This is what he asked:

I was leaning toward McDaniel, but I’m starting to have second thoughts.  Are we cutting our nose off to spite our face?  Cochran is in line to be head of the Appropriations Committee if re-elected.  McDaniel is viewed by many as being the more conservative candidate.  But what has Cochran done to lose my vote?

My anonymous friend gets it.  When it all boils down, this race is about money — specifically government money.

McDaniel says he wants to cut spending, to attack the 16 trillion dollar national debt.  Thus, McDaniel’s schtick is about penny-pinching — to the point where questions have been raised about whether he would be willing to spend money for disaster relief should, let’s say, another Katrina-like storm were to hit the Gulf Coast.  Given that his whole campaign is about cutting spending, he doesn’t seem to be the type who would promise “pork-barrel” projects to special interest groups.

Naturally, this plays into Sen. Cochran’s hands.  Although Sen. Cochran would likely say that he is for restraining government spending, he certainly is not afraid to steer money and projects to Mississippi.  His old friend Trent Lott used to say that “pork” is anything spent north of Memphis.  Given recent mass-emails that I have received from the Cochran campaign, I surmise that Sen. Cochran would tend to agree.  Just take a look at what I received on June 12 from Team Cochran (with emphasis in the original):

First, trial lawyer Chris McDaniel wants to take $800 million from our schools. Now, he wants to take hundreds of millions from our roads. What’s next? Make no mistake: Chris McDaniel is dangerous for Mississippi. And under his dangerous agenda, your taxes will inevitably go up.

***

Chris McDaniel has come under harsh criticism for suggesting that federal education funding is unconstitutional and should be eliminated. Mississippi receives $1.5 billion a year in federal funding for secondary and higher education with $800 million directed to K-12 programs. This accounts for roughly 25 percent of Mississippi’s K-12 education budget.

***

Our Senator drew another sharp contrast with his opponent, whose out of-state funders opposed the Highway Bill, jeopardizing roughly half of Mississippi’s billion-dollar highway program that supports and maintains roads and bridges statewide.

Essentially, Sen. Cochran is saying, “If you elect me, Mississippi will get oodles of money… but if you elect McDaniel, the Magnolia State will lose this money.”

Now, whether this is true or false is completely beside the point.  What matters is that undecided voters, such as my aforementioned friend, have adopted this zero-sum premise.  Therefore, to enable undecided voters to make up their minds, I, too, will adopt this premise for the purposes of tonight’s discussion.

However, before we go further into the analysis of the Cochran-McDaniel race, let’s examine one issue in a complete vacuum.  Let’s take a look at the issue of socialism.

If you are a “fiscal conservative,” you probably loathe the concept of socialism.  Taking money from a rich man (by force) and giving it to a poor man (for doing nothing) undermines thrift and hard-work, does it not?   Someone else (I believe Phil Gramm) once noted that it is easier to move a wagon if more people are pushing and if less people are riding.  Using this analogy, socialism does this in reverse: more people are riding and less people are pushing.

I bring the issue of socialism up to address what I believe is the inherent hypocrisy of the establishment Republicans, like Sen. Cochran.  When it comes to redistributing wealth between individuals, it’s socialism and it’s wrong!  But when it comes to redistributing wealth among states, well, that’s different because poor states like Mississippi need a powerful senator to fight for them; otherwise another state will get the cash.

Again, all Republicans would likely agree that redistribution of wealth between individuals is wrong; but what makes redistribution between states any better?

Long before we had an income tax, the federal government divided the tax burden among the states in proportion to their population.  So if a hypothetical state represented 15% of the nation’s population, then that state would pay 15% of the federal government’s tax burden.  (Of course, there was a little bit more to this.  Congress also collected money from duties and sales taxes, but as far as direct taxation was concerned, this was as close as our Founders intended for us to come.)

There’s an elegance to that when one thinks about it.  Presumably a hypothetical state with 15% of the population would enjoy 15% of the benefits of a federal government; therefore, the state should pay 15% of the costs.  A state should pay its own way; it should put in what it gets out.

Along these lines, as a general rule, shouldn’t a state get out of the federal government no more than what it has put in?

Yes, I realize that there will be unforeseen circumstances (like Katrina) or other exceptions to this general rule.  I get that.  We don’t need to be so rigid that we can’t adjust when necessary.  But still, should this state — or any state — take more money from the federal government than it pays in federal taxes?

This is my ultimate problem with the pork-barrel mentality of politicians like Thad Cochran.  Congress has become a place where states compete with each other for pork, instead of working together for the common good.

I submit that if no state could take money from Washington in excess of the taxes that it has paid — except in emergency situations, such as natural disasters — then there would be little need for such competition between the members of Congress for pork-barrel projects.  Such a change in the paradigm of governance would undermine the present incentive for deficit spending, as we would no longer have 100 senators trying to bring more money to their respective states than their respective states have contributed.

Now do I believe that Chris McDaniel will fix this problem?  Nope.  But for obvious reasons, neither will Sen. Cochran.

The fact is that the only people who can fix this problem are “We, the People.”  Our fiscal problems will not change until we, the people, rise up and say, “Thank you, but we really don’t need this much pork from Washington anymore.  We would rather depend on God, ourselves, and on each other.”

I place no trust in Cochran or McDaniel (or even Childers, the Democrat, for that matter).  My vote was not an expression of my admiration, or lack thereof, for either candidate. Instead, my vote was simply an expression of my conscience — a referendum on the state of my own soul and the state of my faith in the people of Mississippi.

And so, in the final analysis, this is the advice I give my friend… and anyone else who is still undecided:

If you believe that Mississippi is addicted to pork like an alcoholic is to booze, but you also think that Mississippi could handle the sudden shock of losing a bunch of money from Washington, then vote for Chris McDaniel (a/k/a “the Teetotaler”).

On the other hand, if you believe that Mississippi would be unable to handle the loss of this money, thereby causing the state to fall into the economic equivalent of delirium tremens, then vote for Thad Cochran (a/k/a “the Budweiser Guy”).

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4 thoughts on “Cochran v. McDaniel — A Final Analysis

  1. Thanks for the well balanced argument. First, I apologize for not being as articulate as the “The Sociable Conservative”. Second, I propose some things here that I have been pondering through this election cycle.

    So if I am going to follow the argument you make a step further, in order for we the people to “rise up and say, “Thank you, but we really don’t need this much pork from Washington anymore. We would rather depend on God, ourselves, and on each other.”” it would have to be a nationwide effort. For example, if Mississippians stood up and said this, in essence what would happen is we would continue to pay the same amount to the federal government in taxes, we would receive less in return and that added money the federal government had (but really didn’t because it is in deficit spending) would go to other states.

    Now if a “fiscal conservative” running for election really wanted to reduce the amount of government spending and take care of their state they would have to take a different standpoint. They would have to argue – “I am going to Washington to cut back on federal spending and this is how I am going to work towards doing that. However, until I can make this an equal change that is equitable towards all states in the union, I am going to make sure Mississippi has a voice in the sharing of the current pie and whatever resources are allowed to go into that pie in the future.”

    Thoughts?

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    • Your thoughts are well reasoned. It’s kind of like unilateral disarmament. Like in the 1980’s. Did Reagan cut our stockpiles of nuclear weapons before Gorbachev did? Nope. I see where you are coming from.

      The problem with your idea, however, is that politicians — even McDaniel — are imperfect humans. If McDaniel were to win, and if he were to make the same argument that you are making now, then its very possible the special interest groups might be able to put a hook into him.

      Pork is addictive not only for the recipient, but for the politician who cuts the checks. As such, in 40 years he would still be in the Senate, and some conservative neophyte will be biting on his heels saying that he has compromised and is not really a conservative because we now have 45 trillion dollar debt — or whatever the number will be.

      Still, I think you are right. We need someone who can taper this down, who can bring the machine of pork to a slow stop. Kind of like how a drug addict is given meds to prevent DT’s.

      Unfortunately, neither candidate seems to be that kind of person. It appears that we have an all or nothing situation…. go cold turkey with McDaniel or keep partying with Cochran.

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  2. Matt,

    As I read your reply above, I realized that you also make a very good argument both for term limits and a balanced budget amendment. Both of these needed checks and balances would substantially weaken the special interests ability to get pork dollars out of our elected officials. Apart from entitlements, how much of our budget deficit is due to pork?

    However, I will note that there are times when it is appropriate for Congress to fund a worthy project that would otherwise languish unfunded. I do think it is appropriate to a limited extent for federal tax dollars to be used for causes that states are unable to address themselves. It also allows some negotiating room for Congressmen to make compromises with those across the aisle in order to ensure a bill’s success. One state’s pork is another state’s desperately needed initiative that is the only way to give its people sufficient opportunity to compete with other more well-resourced states.

    But the key words are ‘limited extent.’ As part of a broader balanced budget amendment, I would like to see defined limits. For example, 98% of the funding in a bill should be restricted to support the primary purpose of the bill. Any unrelated earmarks would be subject to the 2% limitation. This restriction could be further enhanced by giving the President line-item veto authority.

    At any rate, two things are clear. Congress has proven unable to restrain its own spending, thereby endangering our nation’s future, and requires additional constitutional restraints on their power. Secondly, federal funding to select programs that equitably benefit the states are still needed–that’s the whole point of the federal budget.

    You know: to insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. Stuff like that. Stuff that unrestrained spending endangers.

    So let me pose this question: If Cochran is re-elected, and he chairs the Appropriations Committee, will his fiscal approach be good or bad for America?

    J.T.

    Like

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